This has been an interesting month, with several monoliths of recent pop culture memory drawing to close. A few weeks ago, the Marvel Cinematic Universe brought their sprawling twenty-two film odyssey to a close in the form of Avengers: Endgame. Just last night, The Big Bang Theory put a stamp on twelve season as the top comedy sitcom on the planet.
And Sunday marks the end of one of prestige televisions greatest creations ever, Game of Thrones.
As these things come in on final descent, it's been fascinating to watch the narratives surrounding each, and I found the following article fascinating, especially considering GoT is the only of the three that stems from a literary work originating in the mind of a singular person.
In recent years, George R.R. Martin has become maligned for the glacial speed w/ which he is producing the last installments in his smash series, but I think the part that's been lost is how utterly enthralling what he has produced is…and anybody that thinks otherwise need only look at how the series has floundered as it has tried to soldier on w/o his work as a guide map.
(If you couldn't tell, for my money, Martin belongs on the Mt. Rushmore of contemporary writers)
Funny Hats and Lonely Rooms: Give George R.R. Martin Some Respect
If the mediocrity of the final season of ‘Game of Thrones’ has clarified anything, it’s how quickly the show lost itself without the author’s imagination
George R.R. Martin keeps an annoying blog. He cares way too much about the Giants and the Jets. He wears hats that make him look like he’s just compiled a Hall & Oates playlist and would love for you to hear it on his speedboat. He has failed with an almost surreal persistence to deliver the long (long, long, long)-promised new volume in his bestselling fantasy series, and he has been increasingly sidelined by the global-phenomenon TV franchise that series inspired. Time named him one of the most influential people in the world in 2011, but in the years since, as Game of Thrones has moved beyond the plot boundary of his books, he’s largely been regarded with a Very Online mix of pity, frustration, and contempt. He’s become a tragicomic figure, a man whose story got away from him creatively and outgrew him culturally at the same time.
Got all that? Good. Now, can we take a minute to give him some damn respect?
If the relentless mediocrity of Game of Thrones’ final season has clarified anything, it’s how desperately this show has always needed Martin’s imagination. (God knows it hasn’t clarified character motives or the workings of fantasy elements or the rate-distance equations for determining travel time over continent-sized landmasses.) Without Martin’s storytelling gifts to guide the series—without his understanding of the characters he created and the world into which he set them loose—Game of Thrones has lost its way, and more than that, it’s lost its way without evidently knowing or caring that it has. The show still looks great, at least when you can see it, and it’s still full of hugely talented actors. Narratively, though, it comes across as a tourist wandering through its own story, pressed for time and always a little confused about what’s happening. We only have six days, dear, we can’t spend more than one of them at the White Walkers. Does the guidebook say anything about this Night King person? Oh well. Sorry we can’t pet the dog, Jonny, but we need all our traveler’s cheques for the dragon ride.
As recently as two or three years ago, it was still possible to think of David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, Thrones’ showrunners, as the real creative forces behind the series’ success. Martin, in this way of looking at things, was a kind of inspired amateur. He’d done what he could with a cool idea, but at a certain point, he had to hand his tale over to the professionals, like Tyrion’s relinquishing his hand of the king pin when Tywin got to town. Martin gave Benioff and Weiss an overview of his plans for ending the story and left it to them to fulfill those plans, or not.
Flash forward to this season, and the aggressive clumsiness of Thrones’ endgame—the wildly uneven pacing, the botched characterizations, the fan-enraging bungling of major plot elements (yes, maybe Daenerys’s child-roasting turn was foreshadowed in previous seasons, but there is a difference between foreshadowing and character development)—represents a pretty lethal crossbow bolt to the chest of the showrunners-as-true-auteurs reading. Martin is not an amateur or a child. He’s one of the best fantasy writers of his generation, and having the work of a great fantasy writer to draw from surprisingly turns out to be a useful asset for a television series in the fantasy genre. Losing that work turns out to be enough of a detriment that not even several extremely expensive computers and the world’s most ruthless commitment to night shoots can be guaranteed to make up for it. I have serious qualms about aspects of A Song of Ice and Fire, particularly the way it uses its naturalistic depiction of power as a cover for eroticizing sexual violence. From a storytelling standpoint, though? The more Game of Thrones was about bringing Martin’s vision to the screen, the better it was—darker, stranger, less compromised, more unsettling, more gripping, easier to care about. The more it became about what I guess we can call Benioff and Weiss’s vision, the worse it got—more arbitrary, more pandering, less able to connect its grand spectacle to anything on a human scale.
These are not, in general, good times for writers. Nor are they good times to argue for a writer’s prestige. The internet was built on writing, but lately, at the corporate level, it’s been on a determined campaign to devalue and decenter it. Few books make money for their authors. The streaming-TV boom opened up a market for screenwriters, which was then plunged into unholy chaos by the WGA noticing that TV writers have been getting systematically screwed by their agents. Prestige in culture industries tends to follow money. For at least the last few years, all the signs facing writers in their careers, all the pressure and perceived momentum and opportunity, have encouraged them away from solitary words on the page and toward more mediated, collaborative, and technologically sophisticated roles. Bloggers become podcasters. Magazine writers move into sponcon. Novelists turn into TV writers and then find that even TV writers are at the mercy of a system that sees them as expendable and interchangeable. The impulse that made many of us want to become writers in the first place—the idea that you could sit down by yourself in front of a blank screen and imagine something marvelous into existence—might not be dead, but it’s less viable than it used to be, and therefore less glamorous.
The problem with this state of affairs is that much marvelous storytelling is still done by one person alone in a room, not with an eye toward getting a show green-lit or moving along to the next phase in the production process, but simply because it’s the story they wanted to tell.
One of the reasons Martin himself started writing A Game of Thrones, famously, is that, while working in television, he was frustrated that TV couldn’t handle a story on the scale he wanted to dream up. It’s tempting, in that sense, to read the arc of the saga of Westeros as an allegory for the fate of writing in the late 2010s: It starts in the imagination of a solitary artist, whose beloved work is then swept up by television, where an ever larger group of people spend an ever larger sum of money to make the story ever more gigantic and popular, while the artist dries up creatively and the product gets worse. As an allegory, that’s not really fair; there are too many brilliant TV shows. In the current climate, though, there’s something especially dismaying about the fact that Game of Thrones is no good without Martin’s writing—every part of the story that feels alive comes from his brain—yet the overall effect of the series has been to downgrade his credibility as a writer.
I wonder, too, if one of the reasons Martin is so easy to sneer at these days is that he represents something that’s become a little uncomfortable to think about. He represents the relation between solo creator and world-annihilating media franchise in a way that makes the latter seem uncharacteristically contingent and fragile. We’ve gotten used to looking at Thrones-level entertainment juggernauts as something like impersonal public trusts, properties that belong to all of us; at the highest levels of pop storytelling, we’re comfortable valorizing figures like Marvel’s Kevin Feige, hypercompetent administrators who oversee empires on our behalf and keep the trains running on time. Individual creators whose work achieves this kind of cultural suffusion tend to be punitively depicted as ridiculous whenever they remind us that, for them, these are stories they made up in their heads, not communal texts of a fandom. Think of George Lucas revising Star Wars 20 years after the fact, or J.K. Rowling issuing revelations about Harry Potter characters that she didn’t include in the novels. Martin’s very inability to complete A Song of Ice and Fire speaks to the perilous and uncertain nature of the creative process, the part beyond an executive’s ability to manage. And the fact that Game of Thrones is pretty bad without his work to guide it is an inconvenient reminder that an administrative, collaborative, process-oriented vision of creative work, for all its successes, has limits.
In other words: Here’s to the writers in lonely rooms. Here’s to their funny hats. And here’s to imagination.